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What used to be reserved for the underground electronic music scene has since become a go-to technique for pop arrangers everywhere. Compressing a synth pad or a bass with a side-chain kick drum is a sound that you can't mistake. Let me show you how to set it up. Listen to this unprocessed kick drum and synth pad. (music playing) Now, listen as I enable the side-chain compressor on the synth.
(music playing) Here's how I set it up. As with any side-chain workflow, we must first define what will be receiving the compression and what will act as the key of that compressor. In this case we want to compress or duck the synth pad every time the kick drum hits. Now, because the kick drum is plain and nice even four-on-the floor beat, this creates a cool breathing or pumping effect on the synth pad, as if it was swelling to the beat of the music.
I'll start by applying the compressor to my synth pad. In this case, I'm using the Waves C1. Now, if I stopped here, I would simply be compressing the synth pad using its own signals to trigger the threshold. But that isn't what I want. I want to get the kick drum to talk to the compressor on the synth track. Now, this next step varies from DAW to DAW. In Pro Tools what I need to do is use a bus send to route part of the kick drum's signal into the key or side-chain input of my compressor on the synth track. So what I'm going to do is remove this bus that I've already set up and now I can select from my Sends > bus, and I'll use Bus 1 as my side-chain key.
Turn that up to around 0, to feed that Bus 1. All dynamics plug-ins that support key inputs will have a bus selector at the top left-hand side of the plug-in window. In other DAWs, like Logic, for example, I might simply see a track selector directly on the plug-in that allows me to choose what track I want to key from without having to set up any sends or buses. Now that I have the side-chain signal fed into the compressor, I want to adjust the threshold setting during playback so I can start to get a feel for the effect.
Some compressors might require that I click a button to activate the key input, while others, like this C1, automatically detect the key and start using it immediately. (music playing) This is one case where I will not use the makeup gain on the compressor, because I want to gain reduction to attenuate the signal to achieve that swelling effect as the compressor releases.
Now I can tune the attack and release by ear to get the right amount of lag time between the kick hits and the offbeat synth swells. (music playing) Now, let me switch out the compressor for a gate so we can hear the difference between the two.
Notice how the gate achieves the opposite effect but is just as cool and usable as a creative effect. I've already set up the C1 gate with the correct side-chain input and set the attack, release, and threshold settings. (music playing) Sometimes I like to feed my side-chain with a pre-processed version of the key signal, living on a duplicate muted track.
For example, the processed key can be filtered with EQ to cut out all the high end of a busy loop so the side chain just hears the low-end kick. Remember, you don't have to actually hear the signal play back in your mix; it just has to be an effective key for the side-chain compressor. So experiment with this concept. Generally, I like to use a fast attack and tune the release to feel good with the beat. Every compressor will work a little bit differently, so experiment. I can have better luck with faster compressors that I can really dial in the attack and release settings I'm looking for, but sometimes compressors without attack and release settings can sound killer too.
At any rate, this is definitely a situation where you want to let your ears guide you.
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